We are so excited to have author Aja Gabel at the 2018 Texas Book Festival with her debut novel, The Ensemble! The Ensemble is a story about music and talent, but more than that, it is a story about love and friendship among the members of a string quartet while they navigate the intricacies of life together across several decades.
TBF: What motivated you to write a story about professional chamber musicians?
AJA GABEL: I’d grown up playing chamber music. Besides writing, it was really all I did. And somewhere along the way, I noticed that the bonds formed by those who play together are really curious, and different from the kinds of bonds formed elsewhere. As friends went on into professional careers (and I went on to scholarly pursuits), I understood that the partnership between quartet members is like a marriage, but plussed up. It’s not only a financial partnership and an emotional partnership, but also an artistic one. And it has to happen between four people, over a long period of time, often publically. I wanted to tell that story of collaborative art-making and how a unique family is borne out of that.
TBF: How did you put the quartet’s characters together? They’re all so different, yet all so relatable throughout the novel.
AG: It started with Jana, as it starts in the book. First violinists are often big personalities, and I wanted to explore what kind of person would choose to do that with her life, to lead a group incessantly. From there, I tried to think of the stereotypes of quartet roles (i.e, second violinists are timid) and upend or weave them with real life characteristics that would complicate. For example, cellists are thought to be stable and sturdy, the bass line of the group. But my cellist in the novel is anything but stable, and constantly questioning his purpose in life. I wanted to see those conflicts in his personality, and then come up against other personalities.
TBF: While reading this novel, it is striking how emotionally intricate you write these characters’ experiences, word by word. Why was it important to write the quartet’s story this way?
AG: I read books with lots of twists and turns and big external plot machinery, and I enjoy them, but when I sit down to write, what I’m truly interested in is how a person operates on the inside. The things that happen in someone when they’re speaking to a man who rejected them, or making music in a state of grief, or trying to decide to have kids or not. In my book, I wanted to look at how those work privately over the course of a collaborative life. I think we are complicated beings, full of secret grief and secret love. This book is an exposure of that.
TBF: What novel can you go back to year after year and love again?
AG: Zadie Smith’s On Beauty! I like to read it in the fall or winter. It’s sort of a campus novel, so it reminds me of autumn a lot. But it also covers a lot of time and is told from many different perspectives. Maybe I learned a thing or two from it.
TBF: What is one trait or quirk that you have that would make people say, “That’s so Aja”?
AG: Well, I am very liberal with my movie tastes. I love bad shark movies, bad horror movies, bad romantic comedies, bad action movies starring The Rock. I will watch anything. I think any time my friends want to see a movie they’re embarrassed about seeing, they ask me. I always say yes.
Catch Aja Gabel on Saturday, October 27 at the State Capitol E2.030 from 1:30 – 2:15 at the 2018 Texas Book Festival!